In the current context, where the habits and routines abruptly changed and there is a great uncertainty about the future, it’s normal to feel restless due to negative thoughts, stress and anxiety. But these are the moments that we must use our Emotional Intelligence to manage our emotions – by dealing effectively with our own feelings to overcome these moments .
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
Annibali classifies anxiety as: not managing to relax (muscle tension and difficulty sleeping), a built up tendency to predict the worst case and live in a state of excessive worry, being easily frightened and a built up fear of the future.
Anxiety disorder is related to a lack of balance between our emotions and the "rational mind." According to studies of brain activity, anxiety leads to high activity in the amygdala – the emotional center of the brain - and low activity in the prefrontal cortex - the gear shifter of the brain, which takes the decisions. This balance is the key in emotional intelligence. Without it, we can see that anxiety is a product of negative personal stories - "I can't" - based on extreme emotions, which fight against more rational thoughts. Examples of rational thoughts are: “Ask for more time”, “Take a deep breath and try again”, or even “You can't do it now, but you'll get it later”.
According to a 2014 study (Happify) the main anxiety-causing stressors are: concerns related with health, work, money and climate policy. As such, it’s normal that in a situation like the current health crisis - affecting our social environment, our work environment and by the consequence our income - , you may be more sensitive and by extent be more vulnerable to negative emotions that increase anxiety.
The positive and negative side of Anxiety: the two sides of the same coin
Anxiety has a very important place in our life in its various levels. It can arise when something unpredictable occurs because the mind likes, above all, predictability and comfort entering a state of stress in the face of unexpected events.
Think of everyday situations such as when a car does not stop on the crosswalk where you were preparing to cross or you hear an unexpected noise at home without being able to identify the cause. You become momentarily anxious and may even torment yourself with the matter for a few hours, but you manage to overcome the situation and return to a normal emotional state.
This emotion protects us from dangers by indicating those who would be a threat to our survival. It’s the emotion that tells us to drive slowly in the rain to avoid an accident or to not approach a campfire so we do not get burnt. And is therefore necessary because the absence or a low level of anxiety creates a vision of zero threats that may put our life in danger (after all, if you do not need to be afraid, you do not have to be careful...).
In response to anxiety, individuals tend to be more sensitive to others, building better and stronger relationships. The instinct to protect children and other more vulnerable individuals is also greater.
The anxiety can also anticipate possible problems in a quicker way leading to faster resolutions and better designed plans.
But too much anxiety, can become problematic when it forces you to live in constant suffering and alertness, seeing everything as a possible danger.
If anxiety starts to negatively affect your relationships, work, school or your ability to succeed, it becomes a clinical problem. The most common symptoms are: constant worry or fear that does not go away, extreme stress and avoiding situations or places.
Anxiety at work is usually connected to issues due to excessive tasks with a lack of recognition for the work performed. This type of anxiety is reflected in most cases, by excessive stress and constant fear of dismissal, which can lead to extreme burnout (in 2016 a study by the Portuguese Association of Psychology of Occupational Health, indicated that 13.7% of active people in Portugal were in a state of burnout) that could even lead to hospitalization.
What is Emotional Intelligence and how can it help you reach the right level of anxiety
Emotional Intelligence is, in its most simple definition, the ability to recognize and evaluate our own feelings and those of others, and to deal with these same feelings. This ability is a key element in combating anxiety and stress. If we look at our own emotions and the intrusive thoughts that support and create our anxiety, they are stimulated by our fear of dealing with things we don't want - be it a health problem that we don't want to think about, a job that will overwhelm us, or even a debt that we don’t know how we will settle it. The problem with anxiety is that the more you try to avoid thinking or dealing with the subject that is causing it, the more your negative emotions will increase the anxiety, because you are not dealing in an effective way with situations. You are actually not using one of the base skills of emotional intelligence - the ability to deal with your own feelings.
For example: You need to make an appointment for a doctor and for that you will have to call to schedule it, but you have avoided doing so. This is a basic situation of avoidance because of the fear of the unknown – maybe you want to avoid accepting a bad diagnosis, or even to avoid an exam that makes you feel nervous. These fears cause anxiety because you are living your feelings and emotions without trying to rationalize or control them when, in fact, the reasons for your fear may not even occur – you may actually be in perfect health, and your exams will show you good results.
But thankfully, balancing our anxiety to the right level is possible using some small exercises and techniques, some of which are used in coaching. Let's look at some of these techniques:
- Mindfulness - At its base, mindfulness is defined by “decentralization”. This is the conscious self-observation of the thoughts and mental images where the individual sees these, not as facts or part of reality, but as mental events that may or may not of worth. If the thoughts that arise in a crisis of anxiety are thoughts which you do not value, you can easily reduce the cause of that anxiety. Start by analysing your thoughts: Are these thoughts of worth? Do they have a value for you? You can also use one of many available apps to help you with some Mindfulness exercises like Headspace or Smiling Mind.
- Body relaxation exercises - When you live in anxiety, your body tenses. Exercise in order to free yourself of this tension so that when that anxiety comes you can quickly get rid of it. Exercise tension on a part of the body, and progressively loosen the muscles on which you exerted tension. Repeat for 5 minutes.
- Explore future events - If you are concerned about something specific, write about what you could do if this event happens. (e.g.: "If hypothesis X happens, I will do: Scenario A: Y; Scenario B: Z ... "). By exploring different possibilities of your response to a certain event, you are demystify the unknown. The mind likes what it knows and often anxiety arises as the answer to doubts or the unknown. Thus, by exploring alternatives - “What if…” - you are decreasing the cause of anxiety and preparing yourself mentally and emotionally to deal with all possible scenarios.
- Write a journal - Write your worries in a daily basis. Reread these journals and see if any patterns emerge, determining the situations that make your anxiety flourish and what explore what are the resources you may have overcome any difficulties. For example: If anxiety arises at specific times (see the news) what can you do to prevent it? You can’t always avoid what causes you anxiety, but you may be able to find other ways to reduce it such as: replacement (you may read the news by and online outlet in order to avoid the most shocking images, if that is the cause of your anxiety ), reduced exposure (rather than watch the news several times a day you can only see them once ) or to even experiment with something that will help you reduce your anxiety in the moment it occurs ( became distracted during the news with a hobby that he occupies your hands – like a fidget spinner)
- Exercise your Breathing - Breathing exercises force you to focus on yourself and away from the loop of negative thoughts. Try “breathing through the diaphragm” for at least 5 minutes: Breathe with your belly (you can place your hand on your abdomen to feel how you are breathing more tactfully, or even use a mirror), keep your shoulders and chest relaxed and see the abdomen moving (in and out). This exercise forces you to consciously observe your breathing, forcing you to take a moment to do so. By stopping to do so, you are actively distracting yourself from anxiety. In addition, the diaphragm sends messages of tranquillity to the brain, as this how you will normally breathe when you are calm.
- Don't isolate yourself - You are not alone in your battle against anxiety, and if you start looking, others will share your doubts and anxieties. Talk to them. Ask them what solutions they found and what helped them in times of crisis. Your solutions can help others. But most of all remember: the power to change is in you.
- Change your personal narratives - Your personal thoughts, the discussion that runs constantly in your head, and those moments that you find yourself talking to yourself, these are your personal narratives and these can be positive or negative. If your narrative is something like: "This is very difficult", "Will we survive?", or “It seems to me that this is going to go wrong”, than it is time to change the way you think. It’s normal that in times of crisis that these thoughts will arise in your head more often, but these negative beliefs keep you away from any hope, expectation or anxiety relief, by preparing you to fail as there is no hope to succeed. But this is a completely false belief, as according to Happify, 85% of things with which we concern ourselves about end up having a positive or neutral result. And even when our concerns make sense and have a reason, 80% of people indicated that they coped better with the result than expected.
- Accept Anxiety - This emotion is part of you. It results from our emotions and as such we are the ones who have power over it. It’s normal to feel that in difficult times the anxiety takes over us and overrides everything, but we have the power to change that. Use the following coaching technique from Coach Homaira Kabir and recognize and accept the anxiety you feel :
- Recognize when you are anxious - where does that feeling come from? What part of your body is feeling it?
- Put your hand where you feel the anxiety - the oxytocin released by the touch will help to calm you down.
- Name that anxiety - by naming your anxiety you are creating a barrier between yourself and the emotion allowing you to see the situation from a distance.
- Breathe as if you were trying to calm someone who was afraid or sad.
- Finally, focus on what is stable in your life.
Try some of these techniques and watch your anxiety disappear!
It’s important to consider that anxiety is not a struggle that resolves itself in one day. It’s a narrative that is constantly changing according to different situations and emotional states. This is normal. It occurs in all of us and is part of what makes us human. But that's not to say that you shouldn’t be attentive to the signs of danger, keeping yourself on top of the situation and managing the situation from the start by controlling how the anxiety may affect you.
Remember that what we care about will rarely last forever. Situations that today seem impossible, will be nothing of concern in a few months. What scares you today may not scare you tomorrow. And, what causes you anxiety - the doctor's appointment, the presentation you have to make, the test you have to take - will pass.
Concentrate in the strategies that will lead you to manage anxiety, and you will be in a better position to know when to act, if you should act and how to do it from a place of strength.
Inês Cabral | Project Manager